How Spike Lee and Absolut Vodka Sold Out Brooklyn

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I like Spike Lee a lot, as a filmmaker. As a neighbor, not so much. I live in Fort Greene, the Brooklyn neighborhood that Lee's production company, Forty Acres and a Mule, has called home for some 20 years.

My problem with Lee doesn't stem from the usual neighborly complaints; as far as I know, he doesn't let his dog poop in Fort Greene Park, and his company doesn't throw crazy Tuesday-night parties. Rather, my beef is with his latest "joint," a flavored vodka from Absolut called, of course, Absolut Brooklyn. Lee designed the bottle and helped pick the ingredients. The result, he says, is an ode to Brooklyn stoop life. It joins a growing list of city-themed vodkas from the Swedish brand, including Absolut Los Angeles, Absolut New Orleans, and Absolut Vancouver (not sure about that one). Each has a different set of fruit and spice infusions, supposedly locally inspired; Brooklyn is apparently all about ginger and apples. Why not?

Underneath all the talk about "stoop life" and locally inspired flavors is a multinational liquor company eager to take advantage of Brooklyn consumers.

A few cineastes have gone after Lee for selling out his artistic reputation to promote vodka. I'm not so bothered by that; Lee can do whatever he wants with his name, including ruin it. Others have lashed out at him for promoting booze in neighborhoods with rampant poverty and alcoholism (a recent survey by the Children's Aid Society found 56 Absolut Brooklyn ads in Bedford-Stuyvesant alone). I have something of a problem with that, but he's hardly alone: P-Diddy hawks Ciroc and Billy Dee Williams sells Colt .45 on ads all over Brooklyn, after all.

What disturbs me is how Lee is selling out not just his name, but also his borough and its culture. Underneath all the talk about "stoop life" and locally inspired flavors is a multinational liquor company eager to take advantage of Brooklyn consumers; to do so, it sought out an archetypal authentic local to give it a level of street cred. And for all his proven commitment to defining and celebrating the borough, Lee gladly signed on.

And there's no question where Lee's allegiances lie. For example: In June, writers and fans converged on the Brooklyn Lyceum, in Park Slope, for the fifth annual Brooklyn Blogfest. This year, for the first time, it had corporate sponsorship: Absolut. Not coincidentally, Lee was the featured speaker. According to the Blogfest's website, he was going to "sound off about how and why Brooklyn remains such a rich source of material and inspiration."

Instead, he talked about Absolut Brooklyn. After a few pointed words on neighborhood development—a core topic for Brooklyn bloggers—he said, "This is to celebrate Absolut, so we're not going to get into gentrification tonight. Sorry, Absolut." As for how to keep Brooklyn a "rich source of material and inspiration," Lee called on the audience to blog about his new vodka and proposed that each neighborhood could come up with its own Absolut Brooklyn-based cocktail.

Maybe Lee just really loves Brooklyn, and this was a great new way to promote it, right? But if that's the case, why didn't he team with one of the many great Brooklyn-born-and-bred breweries and distilleries? Instead, he did the opposite: He gave a big leg up to Pernod-Ricard, the multibillion-dollar French firm that owns Absolut, in its quest to colonize the drinking habits of Lee's beloved borough.

Lee likes to portray himself as an enemy of gentrification and a defender of the traditional, Brooklyn vernacular. Instead, he's become a tool in the borough's commodification and the worst enemy of everything he once stood for.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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